Benedict on St. John Chrysostom

Pope Benedict XVI weekly catechesis.

During his general audience on Sept. 19, Pope Benedict XVI offered his reflections on St. John Chrysostom, who died 1,600 years ago this year. St. John Chrysostom strove to connect Christian doctrine to daily life by emphasizing the life-long human development of a person’s physical, intellectual and religious dimensions. He taught that the family is a “little Church” within the wider Church community, where each person has a responsibility for the salvation of those around them.

Dear brothers and sisters,

This year marks the 16th centenary of the death of St. John Chrysostom (407-2007). John of Antioch, called ““Chrysostom”” (golden-mouthed) for his eloquence, lives on to this day through his written works.

An unidentified copyist wrote that his works “flash across the globe like lightning.” His writings enable us — just as they did for the faithful of his time who were repeatedly deprived of his presence because of the times he spent in exile — to experience his presence even today in his books despite his absence. He himself suggested this in one of the letters he wrote while he was in exile (see Letter to Olympia, 8:45).

Life and Formation

Born around the year 349 in Antioch in Syria (modern-day Antakya in the south of Turkey), he carried out his ministry as a priest for about 11 years until he was appointed bishop of Constantinople, the capital of the empire, in the year 397. He exercised his ministry as a bishop until he was exiled on two occasions between 403 and 407, with only a short break between the two.

Today, we will only reflect on the time John Chrysostom spent in Antioch.

His father died when he was still very young, and he lived with his mother, Anthusa, who instilled in him an exquisite human sensitivity and a deep Christian faith. After he completed his elementary and higher education, he studied philosophy and rhetoric under Libanius, a pagan, who was the most famous rhetorician of that era.

At Libanius’ school, John became the greatest orator of late ancient Greece. Baptized in 368, he received his training for ecclesiastical life from Bishop Meletius, who instituted him as lector in 371. This marked Chrysostom’s official entrance into the ecclesiastical cursus (career). From 367-372, he attended the Asceterium, a kind of seminary in Antioch, with a group of other young men, some of whom later became bishops. Under the guidance of the famous exegete Diodorus of Tarsus, John studied historical-literal exegesis, which was a characteristic of the Antiochene tradition.

Monastic Life

At that point, he withdrew to live for four years among the hermits on nearby Mount Silpius. He then continued his retreat for another two years, living alone in a cave under the guidance of an “elder.” During this time, he dedicated himself entirely to meditating on “the precepts of Christ,” the Gospels and especially Paul’s letters.

When his health began to fail, he found it impossible to care for himself and was forced to return to the Christian community in Antioch (see Palladius, Life 5). Through this illness, his biographer explained, the Lord intervened at the right moment so that John could follow his true vocation.

Indeed, he himself would later write that if he had to choose between the trials of governing the Church or the tranquility of monastic life, he would have preferred pastoral service a thousand times over (see On the Priesthood, 6,7). This is exactly what John Chrysostom felt called to do.

This marked a decisive turning point in the development of his vocation: He became a full-time pastor of souls! His intimacy with the Word of God, which was cultivated during his years in the hermitage, fostered in him the irresistible urgency to preach the Gospel and to give to others all that he had received during his years of meditation. In this way, a missionary zeal launched him, a soul afire, into pastoral care.

Pastoral Life

Between 378 and 379, he returned to the city. Ordained a deacon in 381 and a priest in 386, he became a famous preacher in churches throughout the city. He delivered homilies against the Arians, homilies commemorating the martyrs of Antioch, as well as homilies on the principal liturgical feasts.

Together, they constitute a panoramic teaching on faith in Christ and in the light of his saints. Lent of the year 387 was John’s “heroic year,” the so-called revolt against the statues, when the people knocked down statues of the emperor as a sign of protest against an increase in taxes. It seems some things in history never change!

During those days of anguish over the emperor’s impending chastisement, John Chrysostom gave his 22 vibrant Homilies on Statues, focusing on penance and conversion. A period of peaceful pastoral care ensued (387-397).

John Chrysostom is among the most prolific Fathers of the Church, having written 17 treatises, more than 700 authenticated homilies, commentaries on Matthew and Paul (Letters to the Romans, to the Corinthians, to the Ephesians and to the Hebrews), and 241 letters.

He was not a speculative theologian. He transmitted the traditional and unequivocal doctrine of the Church in an age when Arianism, above all, stirred up theological controversies by negating Christ’s divinity. Thus, he is a trustworthy witness to the dogmatic development that the Church had attained by the fourth and fifth century.

His theology is an exquisitely pastoral theology, in which there is constant concern for coherence between thought as it is expressed in words and as it is lived out in life. This, in special way, is the common thread throughout the splendid teachings with which he prepared catechumens to receive baptism.

Just before he died, he wrote that man’s value is found in the “precise knowledge of true doctrine and in a life of righteousness” (see Letter from Exile). These two things, knowledge of the truth and a life of righteousness, go hand in hand. Knowledge must be translated into life.

All of his discourses aimed at developing within the faithful the exercise of intelligence and of true reason in order to understand and put into practice the moral and spiritual requirements of faith.

Pastoral Theology

John Chrysostom was concerned that his writings should assist the integral development of the person in his physical, intellectual and religious dimensions. The various phases of growth are comparable to many seas in an immense ocean. “The first of these seas is childhood” (see Homily on the Gospel of Matthew, 81:5).

Therefore, “in this first stage, inclinations to vice and virtue begin to appear.” That is why God’s law must be imprinted on the soul from the very beginning “as upon a wax tablet” (see Homily on the Gospel of John, 3:1). In fact, this is the most important stage.

We must keep in mind that it is fundamental that in this first phase of life the major orientations that give a proper perspective on life truly enter into man. Therefore, John Chrysostom makes the following recommendation: “From a very young age, arm children with spiritual weapons and teach them to make the Sign of the Cross on their foreheads” (see Homily on the First Letter to the Corinthians, 12:7).

This is followed by adolescence and young adulthood: “Childhood is followed by the sea of adolescence, where gales blow violently … so that concupiscence grows within us” (see Homily on the Gospel of Matthew, 81:5).

Lastly, there is courtship and marriage: “After young adulthood comes the age of maturity, in which the duties of family life abound. It is the time to look for a spouse” (see Homily on the Gospel of Matthew, 81:5).

He recalls the goals of marriage, enriching them — by appealing to the virtue of temperance — with a rich tapestry of personalized relationships. In this way, spouses who are well-prepared will bar the way to divorce: Everything is carried out in a joyful spirit and children can be educated in virtue. When the first child is born, he is “like a bridge; the three become one flesh, because the child brings the two parts together” (see Homily on the Letter to the Colossians, 12:5), and the three constitute “a family, a little Church” (see Homily on the Letter to the Ephesians, 20:6).

Church and Family

John Chrysostom’s preaching normally took place during the liturgy, the “place” in which the community is built up through the Word of God and the Eucharist. Here, the assembly that has gathered together is an expression of the one Church (see Homily on the Letter to the Romans, 8:7), the same word is addressed to everyone in every place (see Homily on the First Letter to the Corinthians, 24:2), and Eucharistic communion becomes an effective sign of unity (see Homily on the Gospel of St. Matthew, 32:7).

His pastoral plan was inserted into the life of the Church, in which laypeople, through baptism, take on the office of priest, king and prophet. “Baptism also makes you king, priest and prophet,” he told the faithful (see Homily on the Second Letter to the Corinthians, 3:5).

From this flows the Church’s fundamental task of mission, because each one, in some way, is responsible for the salvation of others: “This is the principle of our social life … to think not just about ourselves!” (see Homily on Genesis, 9:2). Everything takes place between two poles: the larger Church and the “little Church,” the family, in a mutual relationship.

As you can see, dear brothers and sisters, John Chrysostom’s lesson regarding the authentically Christian presence of the lay faithful in the family and in society is more relevant today than ever.

Let us ask the Lord to make us docile to the teachings of this great teacher of the faith.

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